Oh, Carbonara, how I miss you. One of my favorite things about visiting Italy, Rome specifically, was bowls upon bowls of Carbonara. Velvety carbonara sauce is just dreamy…
Authentic Carbonara is an Italian pasta recipe using eggs, cheese and bacon, while the ingredient list is simple, the execution, particularly raw egg yolks, can be challenging or at the ver least, intimidating.
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In the States
Carbonara is something you don’t see on many Italian American menus and quite frankly, you don’t really see it all that much outside of Rome unless you are at a super touristy restaurant, of which I try to avoid.
You might also see it referred to as pasta carbonara or spaghetti alla carbonara, some just spaghetti carbonara.
And in some restaurants, they call some sort of alfredo carbonara. It is nearly impossible to make carbonara sauce without hot, fresh pasta.
A good dish of carbonara goes back to the basic elements of Italian cooking. Good, simple ingredients. You won’t find dishes with 15 ingredients and tons of toppings in Italy. Nearly all of them are limited to 10 and under.
While Carbonara is a very simple recipe and in fact, very fast to make, it still scares the crap out of most Americans to make it at home. I am not sure if it is the fear of cooking with raw egg, not moving fast enough to make the velvety sauce instead of pasta with scrambled egg.
I had a close friend tell me her kitchen as never been messier and she was never as fearful to make as dish as she was when she made carbonara. The pressure to move fast was just overwhelming. While it is true you can’t dilly dally around the kitchen and time is important, it will also be ok if you don’t move at warp speed.
There are only a couple of basic elements: pasta, pork (bacon or pancetta), cheese (most commonly percerino romano), egg, salt and pepper. Minus the egg and you have cacio e pepe.
First, you must choose your pasta. With over 500 shapes, it is very true that each was designed specifically with a sauce in mind. Carbonara pairs best with a thick, eggy pasta cooked al dente, or in some cases even a little under.
It is most popular in the states with spaghetti (spaghetti carbonara) or wide, flat noodles like fettuccine, but I like mine with bucatini, a fatter, round spaghetti with a hollow center. You’ll see it made most with this type of pasta in Rome too.
I’ve tried Carbonara with cappellini and even tubed pasta like rigatoni and it just doesn’t turn out the same.
Bacon or Pancetta
Second it the first of the fats, the pork, which serves two purposes. First it, flavors the dish, as any fat is really the base flavor of all dishes.
And secondly, the rendered bacon fat coats your noodles and allows the sauce to comes together without turning into just egg.
Pancetta is the most traditional of pork used, but I typically end up using bacon because it is cheaper and easier to find.
What is the difference between pancetta and bacon? Both are pork belly, but bacon is typically cured, smoked and sliced while pancetta is cured and left into a whole chunk, making it easier to cut into larger pieces, or as the French say, lardons.
The bacon and rendered fast can be prepared ahead of time. I make this dish for dinner parties quite frequently and do this step ahead so I just need to boil the pasta and toss.
Guanciale, an Italian cured pork made from the jowls or cheeks is also sometimes used. it is quite tender and doesn’t have as much rendered fat.
Can I make carbonara without bacon? Yes! You will still need a fat to coat the pasta with, so instead of rendered bacon fat, use heated olive oil or butter.
The cheese comes next. Pecorino romano is most commonly used, but any hard cheese, like Parmesan will work.
I wait to season with salt until the very end because these hard, brined cheese also provide a salty profile and vary greatly from cheese to cheese. Some carbonara sauces won’t need any additional salting if the cheese (and bacon) is also salty.
Raw Egg in Carbonara
And of course, the egg. My only advice is to use the freshest eggs you can come by since carbonara is only a lightly cooked egg sauce.
Can I get sick from eating raw eggs in carbonara? You can sick from eating anything, raw or not, but the risk is so low that I don’t even worry about it. Many eggs are even pasteurized (heat treated) and fresh eggs, don’t even require refrigeration.
Try for the freshest eggs you can and know that the sauce is partially cooked. Just as cooked as a benedict sauce, if you eat eggs benedict. You can also look for eggs that specify they have been pasteurized.
Can I make carbonara without eggs? Unfortunately, not eggs are the base of the sauce and there is no good substitution.
It all comes together with a little hot pasta water. Why not just regular water? Because pasta water is has some gluten in it- it is a little thickened. And also has flavor.
What if I forgot to reserve some of the pasta water? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this. My husband hears the curse word from the kitchen and he doesn’t even ask, instead yelling in “forgot to save some water!” I even put the measuring cup with a ladle right by the cooktop, still I fail.
So I have also become really good and finding alternate solutions. The easiest is just a small amount of cornstarch in water. About 1 tablespoon for 1 cup of water. Afterall, pasta water is just starchy water.
What is my sauce is lumpy? Let me tell ya, the one thing I learned while in Rome was that most Carbonaras are a little lumpy. You can add more pasta water to thin it out, but your lumps might also just be cheese and that is totally acceptable!
How to Make Carbonara
After you have the knowledge of how it all comes together and why, the rest is fairly easy.
- Cook the pasta to al dente and drain, set aside.
- Brown and crisp bacon in a large frying pan. Leave 1-2 tablespoons of the hot bacon fat in the pan, scooping out bacon with a slotted spoon. Set cooked bacon aside.
- Add pasta, tossing to coat.
- Quickly and with tongs, toss with egg mixture, cheese and pasta water. Add more pasta water to thin.
- Toss until it thickens. Add bacon back to mixture.
- Serve immediately and season with freshly black pepper and additional salt, if needed.
Some folks also like fresh garlic in the mix, add it to the bacon fat to cook slightly before you add the pasta. You can also top your pasta with scallops, peas, sun dried tomatoes or sliced scallions.
Storage & Reheating
Can carbonara be reheated? I would like to tell you YES, but the sad truth is it never tastes the same as fresh. Never. I’ve tried it so many ways, but it is really hard. The best way is to reheat it is to use cream, making it almost an alfredo.
Heat a small amount (1/2 cup or so) of cream in a saucepan, when simmering, add leftover carbonara and toss until hot. It might not ever be piping hot, but it will be more than room temperature. Add more pecorino romano until makeshift sauce thickens.
Can carbonara be frozen? I wouldn’t do this. The sauce can’t be separated from the pasta and it doesn’t reheat well.
More classic Italian recipes:
- In a large pot, boil enough water for pasta. When it comes to a rolling boil, add 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt.
- Cook pasta according to package directions or al dente, or even 1 minute less.
- When pasta is done, ladle out about 1 cup of starchy boiling water to a heat safe measuring cup. Drain pasta and set aside.
- In a large skillet, cooking bacon or pancetta over medium heat. Use a skillet that might seem too large for this task because you will be using the same one to toss your pasta later, so it needs to be large enough to accomodate 1 pound of cooked pasta.
- Cook bacon until cooked, but not crispy. Remove bacon to a paper towel lined plate, but reserve rendered bacon grease.
- Eyeballing it, reserve about 2 tablespoons of bacon fat, discarding the rest. Set skillet aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk 2 whole eggs with 4 egg yolks. After whisked, combine with pecorino romano cheese and about 2 tablespoons reserved pasta water. Set aside.
- Add pasta to the skillet and toss well with bacon fat.
- Remove from heat (or just turn off burner) and try to pile pasta in the center. Using tongs, slowly pour the egg mixture over the hot pasta, tossing fast to heat the sauce over the pasta.
- Toss for 2 minutes, pasta starch will help sauce thicken, along with residual heat. Add cooked bacon back to the mix.
- If your sauce is too watery or loose, add more cheese. If you sauce is too thick and clumpy, slowly add additional pasta water. You may not use all of the pasta water.
- Transfer to serving dishes and season with freshly ground pepper, Maldon sea salt and additional cheese. Serve immediately.
- If you've tried this recipe, come back and let us know how it was in the comments or ratings.
I’ll list some of my favorite weeknight dinners that might take a few more dishes than this one dish meal idea list. If you have a little extra time, these delicious recipes are worth it: